Tory peer claims landmark treaty tackling violence against women could be used to bring terrorists to UK

A Conservative peer has argued a pan-European convention tackling violence against women could be used as a “Trojan horse” to bring terrorists into the UK.

The Istanbul convention is the most comprehensive legal framework that exists to tackle violence against women and girls, covering domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, female genital mutilation, so-called honour-based violence and forced marriage.

Former prime minister David Cameron signed the convention in 2012 but it still has not been ratified – meaning it is currently in limbo and the UK is not legally bound to follow it. The UK is one of the last EU members – along with Bulgaria, Hungary and a handful of others – to ratify the convention.

During an evidence session to the Joint Committee scrutinising the domestic abuse bill in parliament on Tuesday, Lord Farmer said: “The tension here between ratification under the Istanbul convention and the government’s immigration policy. The ratification could be used as a Trojan horse bringing, for instance, terrorists in as a means of watering it down. There is this tension. How do you ensure that ratification of the convention does not undermine the immigration policy we are talking about.”

Jane Gordon, a human rights barrister with almost two decades of experience, replied: “In terms of international legal obligations, the UK has already ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and it requires states authorities to make sure that they respond to discrimination and violence against women without discrimination on any grounds. 

“We already have international legal obligations that say that we should not be discriminating against migrant women or those with insecure immigration status in responding to the types of violence we are talking about today.”

Ms Gordon, who helped set up Sisters For Change, an international non-profit organisation that seeks to make justice work for marginalised women, said the CEDAW committee had raised “very serious concerns” about whether the UK was compliant with it in its most recent review. 

“I don’t think it is a concern around terrorists. I think it is a concern around making sure we already meet our existing pre-requirements,” she added.

Lord Farmer, a millionaire Conservative Party donor who is a copper tycoon, added: “We are talking about illegal immigrants here.”

But Ms Gordon replied by drawing attention to the fact the human rights act says that if there is a risk of very serious violence or harm to anyone in the UK, public authorities have a duty to protect them.

The draft domestic abuse bill has faced criticism for failing to protect migrant women whose perpetrators use immigration status as a “weapon to abuse” them – as well for failing to offer protection for women in Northern Ireland.

The landmark legislation introduces the first ever statutory definition of domestic abuse to include economic abuse and controlling and manipulative behaviour that is not physical.

But the Joint Committee on Human Rights has hit out at the landmark legislation – raising alarm bells the bill does not currently meet the requirements of the Istanbul Convention.

Illary Valenzuela-Oblitas, of the Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS), said: “At the evidence session, we reminded Lord Farmer and ministers that for the domestic abuse bill to be fit for purpose, it must uphold the human rights of all women, regardless of nationality or immigration status, to be able to live a life free of violence. 

“As specialist organisations in the women sector, leading on the Step Up Migrant Women campaign, we have welcomed steps taken by the UK Government to ratify the Istanbul Convention, however, this will only occur if the bill meaningfully implements guarantees to protect the lives and rights of migrant women”

“We see women who are undocumented or dependent on abusive partners status, who are continuously threatened with deportation or losing custody of their children. As a consequence, thousands of women are reluctant to report violence to state agencies. We responded to Lord Farmer that this bill must not ally with hostile environment policies that prioritise immigration enforcement over the rights of women to exit abuse.”

While guidance is already in place for police forces to support domestic violence victims, they often share data with the Home Office. As a result, the victims can be treated as suspects by immigration officials – something the new legislation fails to address by ensuring they could access support services such as refuges.   

Instead, the government suggests some victims of domestic abuse “may be best served by returning to their country of origin and, where it is available, to the support of their family and friends”.

Zehrah Hasan, of human rights campaigning group, Liberty, said the UK is failing to protect migrant survivors of domestic abuse – with the hostile environment having created a “two-tier system of support”. 

She added: “Survivors with insecure immigration status are often barred from accessing vital services, like refuge accommodation. This dereliction of duty is placing thousands of women and their children at risk of destitution, further violence and death.”

Marchu Girma, deputy director at Women for Refugee Women, said they run a drop-in centre which over 100 women at different stages of the asylum process attend each week. 

“These women have come to the UK to seek safety and many have fled gender-based violence,” she added. “We see how the asylum process routinely makes women destitute, and more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. We are talking about women’s lives here. The question is: are we condemning those women with insecure status to lose their lives because they do not have the right papers? The provision of refuges should be driven by the need, not immigration status.”

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